Chris McGrath: Feats of Pique give Ferguson a fit of pique
The Last Word
It is high time someone made a case for the defence of Manchester United.
Or perhaps even a tea chest, or some kind of sturdy naval trunk. Stick a couple of those roughly where Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand were supposed to be last Sunday, and you would at least see some improved mobility.
Sir Alex Ferguson is rightly being feted for turning the revolving door of his profession into something closer to the Mer de Glace. But you can bet that no toastmaster this week will be referring to the day he lost Gerard Pique thinking he had a better one coming through. After watching Evans and his creaking captain imitate a pair of oil tankers playing water polo, Ferguson would sooner turn the conversation from the Rock of the Nou Camp to Rock Of Gibraltar.
Pique is The Compleat Footballer. On those rare occasions when Barcelona need a late goal, he is sent loping into the front line and immediately looks one of the world's best forwards. And it is defenders of this ilk that provide the authenticating watermark of the great teams.
Plenty of people are admittedly driven nuts by the preening self-image of sides so scrupulously predicated on their aesthetic properties that their defining signature tends to be a defender like Paolo Maldini, who might not actually be able to walk on water but could certainly have been painted doing so by Raphael. Especially when Pique regularly finds himself paired with that notorious Dogo Argentino, Javier Mascherano. Ferguson, certainly, will recall from boyhood that very few hulls in the shipyards of Govan were made of Sèvres.
Be that as it may, events last Sunday surely showed that the national side now requires bypass surgery in the heart of its defence. However grimly functional England may be elsewhere on the pitch, in their back line the same base qualities tend to become alchemically valued as priceless. And Ferdinand and John Terry combine that bulldog spirit with aeons of experience.
But if Manchester City's great statement rendered Ferdinand speechless, it evidently had the reverse effect on Terry. Whatever he may or may not have said – to Ferdinand's brother, of all people – he would plainly have been better off keeping his mouth shut. As it is, he has yet again thickened the noxious miasma that seems to follow him everywhere he goes. And the older he gets, the more his various actual and alleged affronts to decency and class will be treated as paper over cracks in his game. In fairness, Terry is probably no more ghastly now than he has always been. But everyone saw at the World Cup how precariously his role in the team depends on the nervous ostentation with which he performs that of Leader.
As with all bullies, there seems to be a lot of insecurity. It must be said that Chelsea's disciplinary meltdown against QPR was condensed in more captivating fashion by the man standing alongside Terry. Not that David Luiz spent much of his afternoon standing, never mind alongside Terry. Luiz seemed to be propelled through physical dimensions like the experimental creation of some crazed atomic scientist – marauding up and down the field, throwing himself and other people to the ground, and defying Newton with that suspended overhead shot. It was almost as if his famous coiffure would revert to a crew cut the moment he left the pitch.
Here, even so, is a young defender with the stuff of greatness in him. Albeit not the stuff of a great defender. Andre Villas-Boas has already disparaged the idea that Luiz would be deployed less perilously – and more productively – in midfield, but this was the week that broke the spell cast by the young Chelsea manager since his arrival. Certainly, the suspicion that his players' implosion reflected what had just happened at Old Trafford would seem to be supported by the way this debonair intellectual suddenly started digging a moat of irrational self-pity around them.
Villas-Boas even got it into his head to say of Terry: "I find it strange that people doubt a player who is hugely representative of his country." This was a pretty disastrous remark from a man in danger of warming neutrals to Chelsea. For now, thanks largely to David Silva, most are enjoying the City adventure enormously – not least because the collateral benefit to England extends to a rearguard where Joe Hart, Micah Richards and even Joleon Lescott are flourishing.
None the less, Fabio Capello's ultimate successor would be indebted if he were to use next summer primarily to give Ferguson's next generation, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, more experience. It's not as if England have a prayer of stopping Spain or Germany anyway, and they need to plan for the 2014 World Cup on the basis that neither Ferdinand nor Terry will be there. And Evans, dammit, is from Northern Ireland.
Getting shirty over Villa's Bannan
Though footballers are often depicted as terrible role models, most are perfectly decent and responsible men. Or so I've been telling my son.
Last weekend he celebrated his eighth birthday by seeing his heroes at Aston Villa, and picking a replica kit from the club shop. In his wisdom, he chose Barry Bannan, possibly because they are the same size. Within 24 hours, Bannan had been arrested on suspicion of drink-driving and he has now been suspended.
These shirts come at an exorbitant cost, but I suppose this one contained a priceless lesson in growing up. Let's hope Bannan has learnt something, too.
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